CONCORD, N.H. (AP) _ Losing isn't everything in New Hampshire's quirky presidential primary, but it could be, or close to it, for Sen. Bob Dole. Front-runners who slip at the start often fall before the finish.

His close challengers, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander, can afford less than victory. Dole says he can too, although that is a more difficult case to make.

He also said he doesn't expect to be making it. ``It feels better,'' the Senate Republican leader said. ``We think we're going to win.''

Buchanan said he was too smart to get into numbers forecasting. But when the crowds are cheering, the candidates hear. ``We're going over the top,'' the conservative entry cried out to his supporters.

Alexander just kept saying he would do very well and would emerge looking more presidential than either of the others.

Steve Forbes, the flat-tax champion once rated Dole's chief rival, saw his standing flatten, but said he'd keep going, into the crammed lineup of primaries just ahead.

These Republican presidential primary campaigners have avoided the trap that befell candidates who got into the risky business of setting targets by the numbers, and ran to rue it.

Those losing winners, and winning losers, are part of New Hampshire primary lore now: Edmund Muskie, who won in 1972 but was short of the majority his manager had forecast, and so was deemed damaged; Ronald Reagan, who almost upset a president in 1976 but got no credit because his chief ally had promised a win; Eugene McCarthy, who lost in 1968 but was close enough to foretell Lyndon Johnson's departure from the White House.

The wary campaigner heeds those lessons, keeping his target as low as possible without sounding too pessimistic.

For example, although one of his managers blurted a victory claim, Alexander was cautious, saying he would do well and emerge looking presidential while Dole would be weakened.

But if he wins, Dole will not be weakened.

He narrowly captured the Iowa caucuses a week ago, 26 percent to Buchanan's 23 and Alexander's 18.

``I don't think he's going to have a 3-point lead in New Hampshire,'' Buchanan said _ not a sound move in the expectations game, given the low target that set for Dole.

It is not an unreasonable target though. Dole surely would claim triumph in a New Hampshire showing that matched Iowa's. Those caucuses and the dead heat polling in New Hampshire set circumstances in which any win would be victory enough.

He said, more than once, that as much as he would like to win the primary, he doesn't have to, and will campaign on in any event. His manager said he was the only entry with staying power for the entire primary season. And Gov. Steve Merrill, one of the 24 governors in the Dole camp, said the senator has a national organization that can withstand setbacks.

Dole also has the strongest campaign financially, and his rivals won't be able to concentrate on single state drives as they have in New Hampshire and did in Iowa.

For all that, a limping front-runner is still a vulnerable candidate.

One notable exception: Bill Clinton, the only candidate to win the White House without first winning in New Hampshire.

The leadoff primary was Dole's campaign undoing eight years ago; he won easily in Iowa, then lost New Hampshire to George Bush.

Buchanan captured nearly 37 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote against Bush in 1992, but as a protest candidate, without a real chance at nomination.

Now he is the strongest conservative still standing, and when he says the Republican establishment is frightened of him, he's right. Democrats would delight in campaigning against his hard-right views; they'd play the tapes of Dole calling him an extremist.

``I think Bob Dole fears Lamar Alexander breaking out because he is an alternative for the establishment,'' Buchanan said.

That's a sound appraisal. The Dole camp certainly would prefer to see Alexander falter, and to run head-on against Buchanan instead.

Buchanan said Forbes, who peaked in the earlier polls, had been Mr. January.

``I'm Mr. February,'' he claimed.

The real winner will be Mr. March.

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EDITOR'S NOTE _ Walter R. Mears, vice president and columnist for The Associated Press, has reported on Washington and national politics for more than 30 years.